Napoleon Bonaparte famously had his men re-draw the world’s map to make France larger, but he wasn’t the only historic figure who tried to alter the public’s perceptions with cartography.
“Invented Bodies: Shapely Constructs of the Early Modern,” now on view at the Whitney Humanities Center, features maps and manuscripts from the 15th through 18th centuries, depicting Europeans’ interpretations of their world — from realistic renderings to fantastical imaginings.
Drawing on the collections of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the Lewis Walpole Library, the Yale Center for British Art, the Yale Map Department and Sterling Memorial Library, the exhibit includes maps, excerpts from historical works, illustrations and pages from architectural treatises.
In one cartographer’s vision of Europe, the continent is shaped like the body of the Holy Roman Emperor; in another, monsters and mer-people populate the sea. There are two colorful maps by Heinrich Bünting on display: In one, Asia takes the shape of Pegasus, the mythological winged horse; in the other, Bünting draws the world in the shape of a green, three-leaf clover, which refers to the Christian Trinity.
Though the maps’ intricate details and antiquated lettering are striking, the works in this exhibit are most compelling because of what they show about the society that produced them.
For example, in some illustrations from travel narratives from the 1600s, explorers sketched tribal medicine men so that they resembled Greek and Roman gods.
Abe Parrish, head of the Yale Map Department, who made the facsimiles of the maps in the exhibit, said the artists of the time drew on antiquity and their own history for references and inspiration.
“They would draw Native Americans in a classical method, so they would almost look European,” Parrish said. “You have this Indian in a contrapposto pose, so it looks like Michelangelo’s David.”
Pages from architectural treatises and excerpts from utopian narratives also offer insights into how Europeans organized and understood their world — often in very personal ways.
An epilogue on display from the 1666 novel “Blazing World,” by Margaret Cavendish, demonstrates one woman’s fantastical take on her era. Cavendish’s novel describes a New World that she discovers by herself, after she is shipwrecked, rescued by bear-men. She then marries the emperor of a paradise located beyond the North Pole. Once you give it a chance, this exhibit is anything but dry.
Humanities postdoctoral fellow Mia Genoni curated the exhibit as an optional part of her two-year Mellon fellowship. Genoni said she particularly enjoyed taking advantage of Yale’s many different libraries and departments.
“You normally can’t see something from the map collection and the Beinecke and the Walpole in the same room,” Genoni said. “They’re new bedfellows. They don’t always get to hang out together, but they should.”
And the Whitney Humanities Center Gallery wants to play host to more scholarly exhibitions, Whitney Associate Director Mark Bauer said.
“We’re interested in using the gallery in a variety of ways so that it’s not just seen as a place for paintings,” Bauer said. “Having a beautifully curated, insightful, scholarly show is another way that we can use the space to get people talking. And that’s the mission of the humanities center: to engender good debates across the disciplines.”
Despite the exhibit’s scholarly nature, Genoni said she tried to keep the show accessible, by avoiding jargon or academic language.
And even a little kid would find diversion in the show: Maps that look like they’ll lead to a pirate treasure share the walls with pages from imaginative travel narratives, and the blueprints of scientists and artists. Monsters, magicians, and natives with flowers painted on their naked bodies each make an appearance. And it is only after one is bewitched by a drawing that one realizes it is based on the Vitruvian man or it is the frontispiece for Thomas Hobbes’s political tract, “Leviathan.”
“Invented Bodies” runs through June 25.